Sunday, February 20, 2011

Not Deathly Ill

There are waves in the PCUSA right now about a letter that came out from a bunch of men who pastor big churches. When the biggest uproar was about how no women or elders had signed the letter, they issued a follow up clarification letter, as well as adding a zillion new signers practically overnight. The letter claims that the PCUSA is deathly ill and that the main cause of this illness is the fight for (and now trend toward) inclusion. They name the LGBT "issue" as the primary symptom of our illness, as well as including a list of other fun things like "creeping universalism" (which is just fun to say and to picture). The bottom line is that the denomination is getting smaller and we have to stop it ASAP before we fade away into irrelevance or just...well...fade away. They lament the lack of young people, the disproportionate funeral-to-infant-baptism ratio, and (I think) a lack of passion for mission and evangelism. They believe these problems to be the result of lax theological standards and loose morals, and somehow both the cause and the effect of institutional decline.

There have already been a number of fantastic replies to these letters. There have also been defensive replies to the replies. There is a vibrant, if sometimes heated, discussion going on in the church. There is frustration, disappointment, and even anger all around, as well as love and hope and fear and joy and wonder. Some feel the initial letter was condescending, some feel the replies are hateful, and in general everyone is focusing once again on, in my opinion, the wrong thing.

Yes, the PCUSA is getting smaller. Yes, most mainline denominations are getting smaller. And, in fact, most megachurches are even getting smaller.

I do not believe that to be a symptom of deathly illness.

I believe this is a symptom of our culture's move away from institutions. I also believe, along with those who write about generational theory, that this anti-institutional fervor is likely to change in the next 25-50 years as Millennials take the stage with their communitarian and institution-building and institution-trusting tendencies.

More important than the generational theory (and I think it is CRUCIAL, frankly, but few are likely to listen to me about it....go read the book), though, is the fact that we may finally be in a position to stop believing that the institution, the building, the Sunday attendance, is the church. The church is not a building, is not a theological system or a moral code, is not a set of rules, is not a denomination, is not a fight over "issues," is not even a book of order. The church is the people of God, working with God, doing God's work in the world. and in that sense, the church is nowhere near death. In fact, it's quite presumptuous and extremely condescending to declare the church deathly ill when the people of God are working with God all over the place. The fact that they are not joining the PCUSA or any other denomination is not the point (and attendance trends often seem to suggest that people attend but don't join). The fact that the birth rate in the US has dropped, particularly among the educated white families that the PCUSA tends to attract, is not the point. The fact that Millennials are not flocking to church (gee, do/did their parents?) is not the point. In other words--the writers of this letter have missed the point. By a lot. The point is: the people of God are out there doing God's work all over the place. People are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, loving the unloveable, connecting with the image of God in every person, caring for God's creation, loving their neighbors and their enemies, sharing their resources, shining a light, bringing a little joy, offering grace...they are studying, teaching, learning...they are worshipping, gathering, fellowshipping...and it may not be happening in a church building, but it sure as hell is the church. And the church is not deathly ill.

In fact, it is more obvious than ever that the church is alive. The institution may not live in the halls of power, the big-steeple pastors may not have the influence they once had, the culture may not care what we as a whole have to say...but those things aren't what Jesus did anyway, and the early church didn't have any of those things and yet thrived anyway.

So I would argue that the way these letter writers have framed the issue, viewed through my biblical, theological, socio-economic, political, and generational framework: the church has indeed been ill. For the past 60 years (or more, if you head all the way back to Constantine), we have gorged ourselves on power and influence and numbers and programs and attractionalism and big buildings/salaries/pensions and assumptions. Those things crippled our ability to be the people of God working with God to do God's work in the world--to transform the world into the kingdom. And now we are beginning to get well. But like any healing process, some parts are painful.


  1. As a fellow pastor in another mainline denomination where people are arguing over many of the same issues (ELCA), I would like to respond to your post with a loud AMEN!

  2. very good stuff here
    now where are the next ways to get your words out where they can be part of moving to healthy change...? 'cause I was listening last week... and your voice needs to be part of the broader conversation.

    wonderful to see you in action!